What is the key to the success of family businesses?

Business Leader Post, April 29, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

Communication is the most important ingredient for family business success. Mind reading, on the other hand, is the most dangerous thing family members can do. Everybody plays psychologist. When a family member behaves a certain way, everybody gives themselves the freedom to interpret the behavior: "They did this for that reason;" or "Their hidden agenda is... (Fill in the blank.)"

The most highly trained psychologist and/or therapist is incapable of reading another person’s mind. On the contrary, a good psychologist understands that the only person who can answer the question "why" is the individual himself/herself.  Consequently, we (psychologists) are trained to ask questions versus giving answers. We do this for two reasons: First, we get more information as to what the individual is thinking and/or feeling which may help explain the behavior. Secondly, the individual, by having to answer why s/he behaves a certain way, goes through his/ her own examination of the behavior in order to understand it.

It is unbelievable how many times I have listened to one family member's reason for another family member's behavior predicated on the former's assumptions and interpretations.  Making decisions and taking actions in certain situations based on what you assume about others is the surest way to escalate miscommunication.

The antidote to the miscommunication that can ensue from relying on your own interpretations and assumptions is a "reality test."  Check out your assumptions with the family member before you act on them. Most families do not have a reality test integrated into their communication pattern because they are afraid of a confrontation. The risk/benefit analysis has been ingrained in them that it is better to keep things quiet than raise a "fuss" through confrontation.

However, avoiding reality testing only postpones the issue. It does not solve it. In fact, the more the issues are kicked down the road, the more powerful they become over time. Eventually, when you do have to deal with all the miscommunications that have occurred over time, the emotional response will be far greater than if the issue had been dealt with immediately.

Strong and functional families and good companies talk about everything. They constantly discuss and clarify issues or events or behaviors, goals, etc. It keeps the air clear, keeps unnecessary distractions down and develops good teams.
A benign way to "reality test" is simply to ask the individual questions like, "How come you ….?” “What was the reason that you…?" "I am confused, I don’t understand why you …?”

The only "kicker" here is that you have to ask the question with the intention that you are willing to trust the answer. If trust is not present, then the miscommunication has created problems that are putting your family relationships and your business at risk. Take the risk of talking about the seriousness of the issues. The risk of not beginning a serious dialogue is greater.